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Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

In His Own Words

HUMANITIES, March/April 2002 | Volume 23, Number 2

Colored People: A Memoir
A Letter from Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to his daughters Maggie and Lisa

I enjoy the unselfconscious moments of a shared cultural intimacy, whatever form they take, when no one else is watching, when no white people are around. Like Joe Louis's fights, which my father still talks about as part of the fixed repertoire of stories that texture our lives. You've seen his eyes shining as he describes how Louis hit Max Schmeling so many times and so hard, and some reporter asked him, after the fight: "Joe, what would you have done if that last punch hadn't knocked Schmeling out?" And how ole Joe responded, without missing a beat: "I'da run around him to see what was holdin' him up!"

Even so, I rebel at the notion that I can't be part of other groups, that I can't construct identities through elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me. Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American? So I'm divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time-but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color. Bach and James Brown. Sushi and fried catfish. Part of me admires those people who can say with a straight face that they have transcended any attachment to a particular community or group . . . but I always want to run around behind them to see what holds them up.

© Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1994, reprinted with permission.


Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars

Long after white American literature has been anthologized and canonized, and recanonized, our attempts to define a black American canon, foregrounded on its own against a white backdrop, are often decried as racist, separatist, nationalist, or "essentialist." Attempts to derive theories about our literary tradition from the black tradition--a tradition, I might add, that must include black vernacular forms as well as written literary forms--are often greeted by our colleagues in traditional literature departments as misguided attempts to secede from a union which only recently, and with considerable kicking and screaming, has been forged. What is wrong with you people, our friends ask us in genuine passion and concern; after all, aren't we all just citizens of literature here?

Well, yes and no. It is clear that every black American text must confess to a complex ancestry, one high and one low (literary and vernacular), but also one white and one black. There can be no doubt that white texts inform and influence black texts (and vice versa), so that a thoroughly integrated canon of American literature is not only politically sound, it is intellectually sound as well. But the attempts of scholars such as Arnold Rampersad, Houston Baker, M. H. Washington, Nellie McKay, and others to define a black American canon, and to pursue literary interpretation from within this canon, are not meant to refute the soundness of those gestures of integration. Rather, it is a question of perspective, a question of emphasis. Just as we can and must cite a black text within the larger American tradition, we can and must cite it within its own tradition, a tradition not defined by a pseudoscience of racial biology, or a mystically shared essence called blackness, but by the repetition and revision of shared themes, topoi, and tropes, a process that binds the signal texts of the black tradition into a canon just as surely as separate links bind together into a chain.

© Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1992, reprinted with permission.


Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man

Broyard was born black and became white, and his story is compounded of equal parts pragmatism and principle. He knew that the world was filled with snippets and scraps of paper, all conspiring to reduce him to an identity that other people had invented and he had no say in. Broyard responded with X-Acto knives and evasions, with distance and denials and half-denials and cunning half-truths. Over the years, he became a virtuoso of ambiguity and equivocation. Some of his acquaintances knew the truth; many more had heard rumors about "distant" black ancestry (wasn't there a grandfather who was black? A great-grandfather?). But most were entirely unaware, and that was as he preferred it. He kept the truth even from his own children. Society had decreed race to be a matter of natural law, but he wanted race to be an elective affinity, and it was never going to be a fair fight.

Anatole spent his early years in a modest house on St. Ann Street, in a colored neighborhood in the French Quarter. Documents in the Louisiana state archives show all Anatole's ancestors, on both sides, to have been Negroes, at least since the late eighteenth century. The rumor about a distant black ancestor was, in a sense, the reverse of the truth: he may have had one distant white ancestor. Of course, the conventions of color stratification within black America--nowhere more pronounced than in New Orleans--meant that light-skinned blacks often intermarried with other light-skinned blacks, and this was the case with Paul and his "high yellow" wife, Edna. Anatole was the second of three children; he and his sister Lorraine, two years older, were light-skinned, while Shirley, two years younger, was not so light-skinned. (The inheritance of melanin is an uneven business.) In any event, the family was identified as Negro, and identified itself as Negro. It was not the most interesting thing about them. But in America it was not a negligible social fact. The year before Anatole's birth, for example, close to a hundred blacks were lynched in the South and anti-black race riots claimed the lives of hundreds more.

Here is a man who passed for white because he wanted to be a writer and he did not want to be a Negro writer. It is a crass disjunction, but it is not his crassness or his disjunction. His perception was perfectly correct. He would have had to be a Negro writer, which was something he did not want to be. In his terms, he did not want to write about black love, black passion, black suffering, black joy; he wanted to write about love and passion and suffering and joy. We give lip service to the idea of the writer who happens to be black, but had anyone, in the postwar era, ever seen such a thing?

Broyard's friend Richard A. Shweder, an anthropologist and a theorist of culture, says, "I think he believed that reality is constituted by style," and ascribed to Broyard a "deeply romantic view of the intimate connection between style and reality." Broyard passed not because he thought that race wasn't important but because he knew that it was.

© Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1997, reprinted with permission.


The Future of the Race

Twenty-five years ago, I left West Virginia for Yale University, to join the blackest class in the history of that ivy-draped institution. I drove up on my own, without my parents. They were never comfortable in that island of leaded glass and Gothic spires, although you might say they spent much of their lives making sure I arrived there. My father worked two jobs-loading trucks at a paper mill, plus a night shift as a janitor for the phone company-to keep us well fed and well clothed, and to pay the premiums on "college insurance policies," a thousand dollars when we reached eighteen….By day--and it was still light when I first arrived in New Haven--the university is a tangible, mortar-and-stone manifestation of an Oxonian ideal of Gothic perfection. By night, the sense of enchantment increased: the mammoth structures, strangely out of keeping with the surrounding town, guarded their streets with bearded shadows made by the half-light of the lampposts. At Yale, battle hymns were Congregational, with delicate changes of key. The building that just had to be the college cathedral turned out to be Sterling Library. Every feature of the place was alarming and exhilarating. Welcome to Never-Never Land, I told myself. This is your world, the world you've longed for and dreamed of. This was where the goods and entitlements of the American century were stored and distributed. It was the grown-up version of the world of Captain Midnight Decoders; the repository of all those box tops I used to ship off to Kellogg's in fair exchange for laser guns. If college was a warehouse for what we've modishly learned to call "cultural capital," the question wasn't how to get it but what to do with it.

© Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cornel West, 1996, reprinted with permission.


The Signifying Monkey

The black Africans who survived the dreaded "Middle Passage" from the west coast of Africa to the New World did not sail alone. Violently and radically abstracted from their civilizations, these Africans nevertheless carried within them to the Western hemisphere aspects of their cultures that were meaningful, that could not be obliterated, and that they chose, by acts of will, not to forget: their music (a mnemonic device for Bantu and Kwa tonal languages), their myths, their expressive institutional structures, their metaphysical systems of order, and their forms of performance. If "the Dixie Pike," as Jean Toomer put the matter in Cane, "has grown from a goat path in Africa," then the black vernacular tradition stands as its signpost, at that liminal crossroads of culture contact and ensuing difference at which Africa meets Afro-America.

Common sense, in retrospect, argues that these retained elements of culture should have survived, that their complete annihilation would have been far more remarkable than their preservation. The African, after all, was a traveler, albeit an abrupt, ironic traveler, through space and time; and like every traveler, the African "read" a new environment within a received framework of meaning and belief. The notion that the Middle Passage was so traumatic that it functioned to create in the African a tabula rasa of consciousness is as odd as it is a fiction, a fiction that has served several economic orders and their attendant ideologies. The full erasure of traces of cultures as splendid, as ancient, and as shared by the slave traveler as the classic cultures of traditional West Africa would have been extraordinarily difficult. Slavery in the New World, a veritable seething cauldron of cross-cultural contact, however, did serve to create a dynamic of exchange and revision among numerous previously isolated Black African cultures on a scale unprecedented in African history. Inadvertently, African slavery in the New World satisfied the preconditions for the emergence of a new African culture, a truly Pan-African culture fashioned as a colorful weave of linguistic, institutional, metaphysical, and formal threads. What survived this fascinating process was the most useful and the most compelling of the fragments at hand. Afro-American culture is an African culture with a difference as signified by the catalysts of English, Dutch, French, Portuguese, or Spanish languages and cultures, which informed the precise structures that each discrete New World Pan-African culture assumed.

Of the music, myths, and forms of performance that the African brought to the Western Hemisphere, one specific trickster figure recurs with startling frequency in black mythology in Africa, the Caribbean, and South America. This figure appears in black cultures with such frequency that we can think of it as a repeated theme or topos. Indeed, this trickster topos not only seems to have survived the bumpy passage to the New World, but it appears even today in Nigeria, Benin, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and the United States. There can be little doubt that certain fundamental terms for order that the black enslaved brought with them from Africa, and maintained through the mnemonic devices peculiar to oral literature, continued to function both as meaningful units of New World belief systems and as traces of their origins. We lack written documents the historical questions of how this occurred, questions about the means of transmission, translation, and recuperation of the ensuing difference. Nevertheless, this topos functions as a sign of the disrupted wholeness of an African system of meaning and belief that black slaves recreated from memory, preserved by oral narration, improvised upon in ritual-especially in the rituals of the repeated oral narrative-and willed to their own subsequent generations, as hermetically sealed and encoded charts of cultural descent.

© Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1988, reprinted with permission.


Dictionary of Global Culture

And we believe that in a world that is increasingly free of domination by "the West," we will be able both to acknowledge more frankly the evils that were done in the course of Europe's expansion and to celebrate the very real achievements of those Western cultures--and at the same time to take pleasure in the benefits of the creation of a global culture under the steam of the economic, technological, religious, and cultural ideas of Europe and her heirs.

In coming to this recognition, however, we shall also come increasingly to see that, largely because of Europe's involvement in half a millennium of trade and of empire, her economy, technology, religion, and culture are not the products only of "white" people, of Europeans and their descendants outside Europe. Take two entirely different, but representative, examples: that the rebirth of European philosophy in the European Renaissance owed a great deal to the Arab scholars who had kept alive Greek classical learning during the European "Dark Ages"; and that the idea of democracy in the United States was refashioned in part out of the contributions of African Americans whose understanding of freedom was deepened by their understanding of the Old Testament and by their experience of racial slavery. In the vast process of the development of the modern global system, cultures and traditions have mixed and melded to produce in many places--but perhaps above all in the old centers of power, in the United States and Western Europe--new kinds of culture that draw on traditions from all over the planet. It may be true that in some parts of Africa and Asia contemporary cultures are still local traditions with only a thin veneer from the West; but in the United States, at least, both "high" culture--literature, music and dance, painting and sculpture, film and television--and the everyday life of "ordinary" culture--of cuisine, of language, of games and sports--draw on contributions that are an inextricable mixture of elements from Europe, Africa, America, and Asia, and draw also on and endless stream of new ideas in the creative glory of humankind. . . . Our idea in making this book was a simple one: to give those people (to give ourselves) a sampler of cultural contributions from around the globe. In doing so, we have placed some of the achievements of Western culture alongside those of many other cultures and traditions. We have done this in part because those juxtapositions enrich our understanding and appreciation of the achievements of "our" culture; in part because we think that in preparing the new generations for a culture that is more global, it is essential for them to learn about William Shakespeare as they learn about Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, Murasaki Shikibu from Japan, Rabindranath Tagore from India. As we in the West develop a more global culture, we do so in the context of West

© Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1996, reprinted with permission.